Remember the scene from the movie Wonder where the teacher explains the meaning of precept, and then asks a student to read the precept of the week? It's beautifully simple and my favorite quote from the movie, "When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind." I thought of this while listening an ABC interview with Alex Trebek, a man whose celebrity centers on knowing the right answers. He exemplifies this principle. When given the choice between being right or kind, he chose kind.
Alex Trebek announced his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer on March 6th. That was a week after we found out that surgery to remove my aunt’s tumor in her pancreas was no longer possible. During her pre-op appointment, a CT scan showed suspicious nodules and a subsequent lung biopsy proved that the nodules were malignant. This moved her to Stage IV, and in pancreatic cancer, surgery is not possible for Stage IV patients. The day Trebek revealed his diagnosis I was supposed to be in the hospital sitting with my aunt, helping her recover from surgery. But instead of a hospital room, I sat in my home office staring out into the grayness of northern Illinois, compounding my depression. Temperatures were at record lows for that time of year. It was frigid cold, but the chill of the weather couldn’t compare to the chill in my heart. Another diagnosis, another victim.
There’s a heart-wrenching feeling I get when I hear of a new diagnosis. It’s a feeling that I think only victims or someone who has had a loved one diagnosed with this vicious disease understands. It’s hard to describe; there’s nothing to compare. I’ve had friends diagnosed with breast cancer, leukemia, and other diseases. No cancer diagnosis is good; they are all traumatizing in their own way. But, in pancreatic cancer, the dismal survival rate, the anticipation of the excruciating pain victims may endure, and the knowledge that there are few treatment options hover like a dark cloud above and around the patient. Despite all of this, Mr. Trebek was positive and spoke strongly, determined to fight.
I love trivia but admit, prior to Trebek revealing his diagnosis, I rarely watched Jeopardy. I’d tried to watch many times, but I always walked away feeling really dumb. I hated the feeling, so generally, I avoided it. But in March, I had another reason to watch. I didn't care if I knew the answers. I watched to find hope. My aunt was a few weeks into Stage IV, and I desperately wanted to know she had a chance. Each time Mr. Trebek walked on the stage and flawlessly hosted the show, I felt hope. I often said to my husband, “He’s doing well. Di will be up in a few days.”
In late May, Mr. Trebek shared the results of his first course of treatment. The chemo was working! Everyone in the pancreatic cancer community celebrated the good news. Success in this disease is so rare, acknowledging any hint of positive results is important. But, with Mr. Trebek we saw more than a hint. His doctors declared they had not “seen this kind of positive result in their memory.” Some of his tumors shrunk by 50 percent. It was a mega-success!
While Mr. Trebek enjoyed the high of a positive response to treatment, my aunt rapidly declined. She passed away on May 31st. However, my grief did not stop me from following and pulling for Alex. Over the last twelve months, I’d lost two relatives (father-in-law and aunt) and a friend to pancreatic cancer; I found comfort in seeing progress being made.
Jeopardy took its summer break, and there were less news reports about the status of Trebek’s treatment. Then, in August, he shared more positive news. Immunotherapy, which seeks to boost the body’s natural defenses to fight the cancer, replaced the chemo treatments. Elated, he joked that the biggest challenge for Jeopardy viewers in the new season would be to figure out if he was sporting his real hair or a hairpiece. Encouraging news! More survivors, more hope.
Sadly, immunotherapy changed things. It was unsuccessful, as it often is in pancreatic cancer. In September, Trebek announced a “setback” and shared he would undergo more chemo. Hearing the disappointing update was a haunting reminder of the surgical and oncology consultations I sat through with my aunt. One visit we’d leave the doctor's office with a smile wider than the Joker himself, thrilled that hope was not just alive, but thriving. Then, a few weeks later, a CT scan would show that the cancer was no longer responding to chemo. The ups and downs on this most brutal rollercoaster were mentally and emotionally exhausting. My heart broke for Alex. I felt the disappointment in his voice and remembered the dark feeling of utter despair.
Over the last few weeks, I've watched the interviews Trebek has given. When I hear him speak, I want to jump through the screen and give him a big hug. Some of his comments strike a chord in my heart, and I imagine I’m the interviewer sitting across from him and the things I would say.....
Trebek: Reflecting on how hopeful he’d been after his body’s response to chemo says that declaring success was “premature and overly optimistic.”
I would say … There is no such thing as too much optimism with this diagnosis. Pancreatic cancer is diabolically clever and often outsmarts therapy. Setbacks do not take away from the moments of success. One should never regret sharing or celebrating positive results. He’ll never know the number of people he inspired by showing them success - regardless of how much or how little - is possible with this disease.
Trebek: Referring to hosting Jeopardy as he undergoes chemo, he said, “There are weaknesses I feel in my body but I can always suck it up when it comes to the show,” and further admitted he thought “observant members of the audience notice also, but they’re forgiving.”
I would say.… Any weakness he may feel is overshadowed by the strength we see each time he courageously walks on stage, and it's overpowered by the hope he gives other victims and their loved ones. Weakness isn’t even close to what the audience sees!
Trebek: Second-guessing publicly disclosing his diagnosis, he lamented "trying to be as optimistic as you can when the other person feels none of that … they feel only despair. I don't know if I was strong enough or intelligent enough to help alleviate that despair."
I would say…. His speaking out and bringing attention to this disease are signs of strength and commitment. Weaker people would have kept silent, perpetuating the common thought that there is no hope with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, and that silence, the easiest response, is the best response.
I understand that being in the spotlight during such a difficult time complicates life. No doubt many patients and their loved ones come to Trebek for answers. In a recent interview, he stated, "a lot of people are coming to me and looking for help, reassurance, and that's tough." I wish there were something he could hear that would make this feeling of responsibility go away. I think after 36 years of giving the right answers, it’s OK if he simply says “I don’t know, but there’s hope.” Even the best oncologists, researchers and surgeons - individuals who spend their lives learning about and helping patients fight this disease - do not have all the answers. And, truthfully, people ask for a lot of things, but the most important thing they want to hear is that there is reason to hope.
Trebek brought pancreatic cancer into the public spotlight, something it so desperately needed and continues to need. I wear my purple ribbon or my pancreatic cancer awareness shirt, and people ask, "Is that what Alex Trebek has?” I say yes, and the conversation begins; someone who knew nothing about pancreatic cancer walks away aware. Then, that person tells another, and then another. Someday, maybe tomorrow or maybe years from now, someone will experience an early symptom, a warning sign, and will insist on a scan that will lead to early diagnosis. The early diagnosis will lead to a successful surgery. A life will be saved, all because Alex Trebek had the courage to share his story.